I was just saying the other day that they just don't make enough absurdist existential comedies anymore. What a coincidence that only a few days later, along comes Cold Souls, the story of an actor named Paul Giamatti, played by none other than an actor named Paul Giamatti, who decides to expunge his soul and place it in storage so he can do a better job playing Uncle Vanya on stage only to have it stolen by soul smugglers and taken by a mule all the way to St. Petersburg Russia to be sold on the black market where Giamatti is forced to chase it down and try to save his mortal soul so to speak. What a coincidence indeed.
Seriously though, and this film does take its comedy seriously enough, Sophie Barthes' directorial debut is a deliriously maudlin dark comedy that has been inevitably - and unfairly I believe - compared with Spike Jonze's Grand Guignol absurdity, Being John Malkovich. Any comparison of the two will inevitably - and unfairly I believe - be a losing battle for Barthes' film. Yes there are obvious similarities. Cold Souls, Like Malkovich before it is a realifantasy of sorts - both films having their actors play themselves and going through almost surreal situations. But, whereas Cold Souls is a film made by a director still figuring out the lay of the land, Malkovich was made by a director who, though his debut film as well, already seemed to know how to create fantastic images and tell a profoundly resonant story.
Okay, perhaps I am selling the film short now. After all, as unsteady as Barthes may be to the camera (figuratively, not literally) and the idea of capturing an image that will elucidate her own voice, we still see more than a glimpse of what is to come for the filmmaker. There are shots in Cold Souls (the porous streets of St. Petersburg, the quiet cold majesty of Brooklyn) that are visually stunning - a sort of unfiltered poetry, to sound not too cliche - and they all lead to that one final brilliant shot, not overdone to seem as cliche, that blurs out into the ocean and its sunset, and therefore into the void (again figuratively, but this time also literally) and bids a final farewell to Giamatti and his soulless - and over-souled - plight.
And speaking of Paul Giamatti, the actor playing what is essentially himself, manages to instill in his "character" a sense of hunkering pain. Going even deeper than his role in Sideways (a role not that far off the mark either probably), Giamatti weighs heavily upon his "character" as if, yes, his soul is his burden. With flights of frenzied passion (as when he is inhabited by the soul of a Russian poet) Giamatti brings life to Barthes' promising young film. While the director gives the film a newbie exuberance, albeit one filled with a longing trepidation, the actor gives the film, ironically (and inevitably), its soul. Now we fade into the sunset just like that final brilliant shot and as the house lights come up, we see the credit read "a film by Sophie Barthes". [09/25/09]